“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
I would like to amend Benjamin Franklin’s list by adding one new certainty: Romelu Lukaku’s eventual departure from Everton for an exorbitant fee this summer.
With the young Belgian star set for an imminent departure from Goodison Park, transfer rumors have begun to swirl. And why shouldn’t they? In the 2016/17 season, Lukaku has been excellent, providing 21 goals with 6 assists and is currently the Premier League’s Golden Boot winner-elect. Naturally, these types of stats are attracting the usual cast of big name teams with former club Chelsea appearing to be the keenest on the 23 year old. The impressive stat line, a likely £65 million price tag, a place in the starting XI of the 7th ranked national team, and some of the biggest clubs in the world chasing after his signature paints a picture of an undoubtedly world class player.
But is he?
It is easy to look at Lukaku’s statistics and make the claim that he is a world class talent. After all, he is currently placed 9th in Europe’s Golden Shoe race among the likes of Lionel Messi, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Robert Lewandowski, and Luis Suarez. Combine this with the fact that he has the most assists out of any striker in the Premier League and that world class statement seems to ring truer. And if you thought that this is just a one season wonder, keep in mind that he found the back of the net 18 times and provided 6 assists last year too. There is no doubt that he is one of the best players in the Premier League. But he is not world class.
Let’s take a deeper look at his goal scoring record for this season. Out of Lukaku’s 21 total league goals, only 5 of them have come against top half opposition. 8, or 38% of his goals have come against the bottom five teams in the table and 21% of his goalscoring total were credited from just one game against an absolutely shambolic Bournemouth defense back in October. Flat track bully is a term that has been thrown around a lot, often unfairly, but based on these numbers, one cannot help but wonder whether Lukaku is deserving of that unenviable reputation.
Romelu Lukaku’s case for being world class is not helped by David Dubas-Fisher of the Mirror who keeps a constantly updated Premier League table if each team was without their leading scorer. Surprisingly, without Lukaku, widely regarded as the club’s most important player, Everton not only make the top 4 but are safely in 3rd automatically qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League. Besides Burnley and West Ham (who both move up tied for 9th on points in this fantasy table), no other club is less reliant on their leading goalscorer.
And yes, maybe this is all just making something out of nothing based on numbers. However, in actual big games, the narrative holds true with Lukaku often having a quiet, minimal effect on his team’s result or in fact proving detrimental to Everton’s goal scoring chances through a lack of vision, awareness, and a constant desire to attempt low percentage, long range shots.
Case in point: Tuesday’s affair against Manchester United. The incentives were there. With a win, Everton would have been just five points out of a spot in the top four, and would have recorded the club’s first win at Old Trafford in 23 years. If this wasn’t enough for Lukaku, who has made it clear he does not wish to remain at Everton next season, a huge game under the lights against a massive club who are purported to be interested in his services should have been more than enough for him to put in a good performance. In the end, Everton played out to a disappointing 1-1 draw and instead of helping his club or impressing United, the only attention Lukaku got was a stern talking to from his captain Ashley Williams after referee Neil Swarbrick whistled for full time.
To be fair to Lukaku, he often has to rely on poor service and in this game he was the victim of some poor balls left behind him that inhibited his ability to use his pace to get behind the defender. However, there were several potential goal scoring opportunities in which all the Everton striker needed to do was play an easy pass to his teammate for an even better chance at finding the back of the net. The most egregious of which occurring in the 35th minute where Everton had a 2v2 with Kevin Mirallas in acres of space to Lukaku’s right. Instead, the young Belgian elects to move to his left and attempt a shot from just outside the penalty area that was easily blocked away by Ashley Young.
In a similar situation in the 79th minute, with Everton still leading 1-0, Lukaku puts on an impressive show of strength and pace to get away from United defender Marcos Rojo and barrels his way down the right side. He has two options here; attempt a shot with two defenders covering him or attempt to find Ross Barkley who is left unguarded to his far left with a pass. Lukaku makes the decision to attempt the shot but far too late and Eric Bailly is able to get in front of him and blocks the ball away for a corner. With a potential spot in the top 4 and the game still very much in the balance, this is just not good enough from the Everton star.
I cannot begin to fathom how frustrating these two plays were for Everton fans watching live. In the former sequence, for a player who has the most assists out of any striker in the league this season, he should have no qualms about playing the ball to Mirallas for the much better opportunity. In the latter sequence, he demonstrates his world class physical traits to create the possibility of the goal, but does not appear to even consider Ross Barkley as an option and ends up deciding to shoot too late.
Of course it is easy for me to sit here and write that Lukaku should have passed here or shot there but I have a difficult time believing that the players he finds himself in the company of on Europe’s Golden Shoe list with would have made the same decisions and would at least end the possession with a shot on target. Ultimately, this is why he falls short of world class standing. To play football at a high level it requires an incredible amount of technical and physical ability, which for the most part, Lukaku already possesses. But it also requires incredible instinct which time and time again he has not demonstrated he fully possesses.
Being 23 years old and having yet to even play a game in the UEFA Champions League, perhaps this instinct will come. However, in spite of his current £65 million rating, he still appears far from a finished product. With a move to West London looking increasing likely, Everton fans should not look at his departure with sadness like Tottenham fans did with Gareth Bale’s move to Real Madrid. At the same time fans of whichever club Lukaku ends up at should give him time and not expect an immediate world class output from him.